January 4, 2012KR OnlineFiction

The Purple Suit

It was two years since Solomon’s father’s accident. Two years to the day when the invitation to the harvest ball arrived. The ball was to be a formal affair—one sponsored by the Shire from its mysterious entertainment fund, various town businesses, and a few of the richer farmers who’d had bumper seasons. For once, it’d had been a year of perfect weather. Rain had fallen—plenty but not too much—storms had stayed away, and wheat prices were high. Not like the year Solomon’s father had died—it was bones-of-your-bum drought that year, and foreclosures were routine.

The small house Solomon now lived in with his mum was a far cry from the great rambling farmhouse out on Broad Dales they’d once occupied as a family. But he tried not to think about that, tried not to compare. It was the easiest thing to do. There was before, and there was after. And this was after.

He didn’t want to go to the ball, but he felt he owed his mum. She wouldn’t go with another man—he knew that and it pleased him—but he knew the price of loyalty to his dead father, and his loyalty to her as the male in her life, was accompanying her to the ball. That was socially acceptable, socially appropriate. Solomon was a very proper fourteen-year old who didn’t see himself as like his peers in any way. He didn’t drink, smoke, or finger girls on the school bus. He planned to go to university, study law, and eventually buy back Broad Dales, whose loss, along with his father’s death, was sediment at the bottom of his life.

There was no money to buy a suit for Solomon, but all agreed he must have one. His mother wouldn’t have minded if he’d gone in his jeans and a crisp shirt, but there was to be none of that. His mum’s clothes were dated but good quality. His parents had been icons of the town, the perfect couple, and the town wheeled them out on special occasions for admiration. Stalwart, reliable, and handsome.

Solomon spent the morning walking along the river. It was just starting to turn with the heat, to settle to a mixture of dry stretches where it had been trained to prevent flooding, and the few remaining permanent waterholes. The waterholes were linked with algae—thick, stagnant streams, though by the town itself there was a long, deep stretch of water that kids still swam in, despite signs warning of amoebic meningitis in fading red letters, dented and bent with assault by stones. He carried a sketchbook with him and added to his paper aviary of birds. That morning he saw two spoonbills, an egret with feathers whiter than how he imagined snow, a white-faced heron, and a group of small waders he couldn’t quite identify at this distance, but guessed would be plovers come out of the stubble to the edge of the river. There were many other birds he didn’t sketch.

Walking in again through the back door, he saw it straight away, stretched out on tissue paper on the Formica kitchen table. The purple suit.

What do you think? asked his mum.

He said nothing, but walked across to the piano, crammed into the kitchen with most things they owned, and dropped his sketchbook on top of the instrument with the piles of sheet music. He noticed a Grade One book and guessed that Mrs. Crest’s daughter had been in for a lesson. The town’s worthy sent their young ones to his mother for lessons, to help out. It pained him. Rum tum, tum, rum tum, tum, listen to the big bass drum… over and over.

It’s not just a loan, Solomon, it’s a gift from Mrs. Crest. It was her eldest, Dean’s old suit. He doesn’t wear it any more. It’s in perfect condition; he just grew out of it.

Solomon’s nemesis, Dean. Dean was always kind, but made him feel it. Four years older, Dean was now in the city at the Mining School. He was ambitious and going to be rich. His whole family was ambitious. They were townies, not farmers. Mr. Crest, bank manager, sat on the boards of the local supermarket, the district newspaper, and no doubt the harvest ball committee. Solomon cringed. But seeing his mother droop, he said, Thanks, Mum. I will write a note to Mrs. Crest.

The dutiful son took the purple suit, carefully, on its bed of tissue paper, to his room, where he placed it on hangers and suspended it across the narrow oval mirror of his chipboard-and-masonite wardrobe. He knew his every movement, his every echo-location of what he lacked—what they lacked—exaggerated the pathos. He was proud in the bubble of his own pity. Purple rayon suit on old chipboard and masonite, he told himself. He scrunched up the tissue paper and hurled it into his wastepaper bin. Flopping on the bed, he hooked an arm beneath the candlewick cover fringing the floor, and grabbed a book from underneath without looking. Here during school term he did his homework, or when Mum wasn’t teaching piano, at the kitchen table.

Rather than falling sick on the day of the ball, Solomon started getting sick a few days before, and easing into it. That would prepare his mother for the disappointment. Stomach cramps, dizziness, gagging, but not too much—not enough to go to the doctor, though his mother kept insisting. No, no, it will pass. It got slightly worse each day.

But worse, what made him genuinely ill was that his mother just came out with it and said, I know you’re ashamed to wear that suit, I know that Mrs. Crest’s son will be at the ball and will feel superior to you, I know what the Crests are like, and I know that suit is out of fashion. You will stick out like a sore thumb. Everyone will notice you, and I know how much you hate being noticed.

That was brutal. His mum could be like that. She wasn’t all sweetness and light. She wasn’t a downtrodden widow who absorbed everyone’s pity to make her life liveable. She knew the truth of the town; she knew the truth of the families who sent their little talentless ones to plunk the keys for the first three grades before they found a more professional teacher to further dreams of cultural capital. She knew those who helped take the farm off her hands didn’t give a shit about her or her son. She knew her husband’s death was an accident: his tractor had overturned, one of those accidents that in any other industry would have come under scrutiny. Only the country doesn’t protect its own.

And anyway, his mother continued—Solomon still dumbfounded, a dying duck on his candlewick—anyway, I think I’ll go on my own. I’d prefer it. I might cut my wedding dress up, turn it into a Vivienne Westwood mini. With no underwear.

Solomon blushed. He squirmed.

Sorry, darling, didn’t mean to make you feel uncomfortable. Just thinking aloud.

Solomon thought his mum had cracked, had finally lost the plot. The strain had got to her.

I’m feeling better, he said, I’ll be right. It rushed out of him.

You’ll look fine in that suit, his mother said without appeasement, without thanks. Walking back into the kitchen through his bedroom door, she added, You’ll look more than fine, Solomon, you’ll look like your father. He was always the one who stood out.

They walked the couple of kilometers to the ball, having refused a lift from Mrs. Crest, who poked her head through the back door in her finery to offer it. Seeing Solomon first in the purple suit, she said, My, I think you shine brighter than our Dean ever shone in that outfit. She inflected ‘outfit’ in a clownish fashion. He’ll be there tonight, she added, he will be delighted to see his old suit put to such good use!

When Solomon’s mother appeared, Mrs. Crest looked genuinely shocked, Well, you’ve turned the clock back, my dear! You were always the belle of the ball. Solomon noted that there was no sarcasm in Mrs. Crest’s voice, and if there was, it had caught in the throat and was stuck there. Mrs. Crest’s gown, stylish and costly, was recently purchased, whereas his mother was wearing a silver lamé gown of twenty years ago. It wasn’t a Vivienne Westwood shocker, but it was a surprise, and would stick out like a sore thumb. A sore thumb that made people jealous.

Solomon had never drunk alcohol before but that night he downed sherry after sherry. He watched his mother dance with men he knew she despised, and absorbed polite barbs from Dean and impolite barbs from his schoolmates. He’d cop it first day back at school. They all caught the bus to travel the sixty kilometres to the senior high school, so he wouldn’t be able to get away with it before or after school. Fashionable, one girl said. Sharp, one of the overdeveloped rich cockies’ sons said. Solomon was no longer counted as a farmer’s son. A dead farmer is okay, but no land meant no status in that world. He drank and looked supercilious. He didn’t get out of control; he didn’t vomit. He just stood watching his mother go round and round making a fool of herself. Not that she did anything odd or wrong. Rather, she enjoyed herself.

They walked home after the ball. Solomon felt a little heavy, but didn’t think the alcohol had had much effect on him.

You shouldn’t drink, Solomon, it makes you more sad and dour than you are.

The fresh air started to go to his head. I think you imagined you were wearing that Vivienne Westwood dress you mentioned, Mum. Having fantasies about all those men mauling you.

His face stung. His mother had slapped him. She had never hit him in her life. His father had belted him. He burst into tears.

Why did Dad hit me so much? he yelled at her. Why didn’t you stop him?

Blood trickled from his lip. He tasted it through the sherry, could feel its warmth. It dripped down onto the purple suit and was lost in the dye and moonlight. The night was bright. If anything, it simply cast a shadow over the jacket.

His mother didn’t apologise. She didn’t say anything for a while. And when she did, it was simply, Come on, keep up, it’s time we got home to bed. I’ve got lessons to give in the morning. And that suit will need to be dry-cleaned. I think it’s done its duty. We might give it back to Mrs. Crest, even if she doesn’t want it.

Moonlight singed the hair on the back of Solomon’s neck. His jacket collar rubbed. He identified the mo-poke call of a bird—a tawny frogmouth—in the great York gumtree they walked under. And then he cried a little as his mother said, Mr. Crest is a good dancer… it must pain him that Mrs. Crest dances so poorly.

John Kinsella
John Kinsella's recent books of poetry include Firebreaks (WW Norton, 2016), Jam Tree Gully (WW Norton, 2012) which won the Australian Prime Minister's Award for Poetry and the Judith Wright Calanthe Award, and Sack (Picador, UK, 2014). He is an Extraordinary Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge University and Professor of Literature and Environment at Curtin University.